Successful golf: Think like a caddie and don’t get hit in the goolies

  My birthday present a few years ago was a golf lesson.

Instead of meeting me at a driving range for an hour, Ben the golf pro thought it would be a good idea if he just played nine holes with me. We had a nice time, and he made mental notes on each of my swings and gave me his verdict.

“You’re doing about 13 things wrong,” he said. “I could work with you the rest of the summer and fix them one at a time.”

That didn’t sound like fun.

“The good news is, all the bad stuff is balancing itself out. You’re playing OK and seem to be having fun. You could just keep doing what you’re doing.”

I chose that second option. Ben showed me one simple trick about hitting mid-irons out of deep grass, and we never spoke about golf again.

Like most people my age, I’m a complicated mixture of bad information and bad habits. No one really taught us the proper way to throw a football or mow a lawn. We just watched someone else do it and improvised whenever we failed.

The advice we got about baseball basically was to make sure you could read the trademark whenever you swung a bat. If you didn’t, you had a higher risk of breaking the bat. If that happened, it might be a week before you got a new bat and could play again.

Our summers were busy enough that I played golf about once a year until I reached college. It was there that I started to realize that swinging a golf club was a lot different from swinging a baseball bat. Thus began a lifetime of tinkering.

In my retirement, I usually play twice a week. I’m one of those guys who expect a bogey, enjoy a par and remember a birdie. For me, it’s an activity where camaraderie is more important than competition, and I rarely keep score.

I don’t take the game seriously, and that’s why I was surprised when I found seven golf how-to books on my shelf I was cleaning today. Most likely, I picked them all up cheap at a Goodwill or dollar stores or library used-book sales. 

Four of them – Golf Swing Basics, 101 Essential Tips, Shave 10 Strokes in 12 Days, and Break 100 in 21 Days – seem to have been written by unknown pros trying to earn a little extra money. A fifth – My Golden Lessons by Jack Nicklaus – looks like it actually could help me, if I were looking for advice, which I am not.

Those books probably will go back to a thrift store. One of the two I may keep is called The Worst Case Scenario, Survival Handbook: Golf. 

Did you hit a ball deep in the rough or do you have a blister on your left thumb? That’s easy stuff. The authors say, take a wedge into the rough, open your stance and club face, aim right of your target and accelerate your club head through the ball. For the blister, carry a band-aid.

But those don’t really qualify as worst case, do they? One of the book’s chapters will help you identify the four poisonous snakes you might see on American golf courses – rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasins and coral snakes. Another advises on what to do if you get your cart stuck in a sand trap or if your club gets stuck in a tree or if your cigar starts a brush fire.

There also is a chapter titled “How to Survive Being Hit in the Goolies.” That’s how I learned the Scottish term for a fairly common body part.

The other book I’m keeping is called Think Like a Caddie, Play Like a Pro. I actually read this one several years ago when I was volunteering as a caddie at the Symetra tournament at Blackthorn.

There is a lot of advice in there that makes sense, such as how to read the break on a green and how do you adjust if you’re playing in a steady breeze. Important stuff, if I’m preparing for a rare day when I’m actually going to keep score.

But the best advice is in the title itself.

I might be standing 215 yards from the pin with a pond between me and the green. I’m thinking, if I hit my 5 wood just right, I can stop just short of the flag and tap in for an eagle.

My imaginary caddie is laughing at that idea. A 5 wood goes into the pond nine times out of 10. He’s saying, lay up with a pitching wedge for 115 yards. Loft a sand wedge for another 100, and hope you land close enough that you don’t three-putt.

A caddie knows I’m not nearly as good as I think I am. And he’ll also keep an eye out so I don’t get hit in the goolies.